Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Miss Marjoribanks by Margaret Oliphant

I've been hearing about Miss Marjoribanks off and on for awhile now on other classics-loving book blogs, and when the GoodReads Victorians group announced that it would be a group read this fall, I jumped at the chance to read along.

Miss Marjoribanks is by the prolific Margaret Oliphant.  Published in 1865, it is in her Carlingford series, which she modeled after Anthony Trollope's Barsetshire series.  Carlingford is a mythical town in England, and the series chronicles the lives and fortunes of various inhabitants--sometimes focusing on one neighborhood and the mores of it, and sometimes on another.  Carlingford is, according to Oliphant, "essentially a quiet place" with "no trade, no manufactures, no anything in particular."

Miss Marjoribanks tells the story of Lucilla Marjoribanks, only daughter of the town's doctor.  Her mother dies early in the book, and as soon as Lucilla finishes with her schooling she returns to Carlingford to care for her father and manage the town's society.

Lucilla is a completely unique heroine--I've never encountered anyone quite like Lucilla, either in the flesh or in print or on the stage.  She's a cross between Austen's Emma Woodhouse, Stella Poste (from Cold Comfort Farm), and Elle Woods (from Legally Blonde).  She has a super-abundance of self-confidence, self-consciously runs shallow (yes, there is nothing more important than getting the exact shade of green wallpaper for her drawing room so as to complement her complexion), loves to be in charge and should be (no one else comes close to her management abilities), has blinders on when it comes to her own heart, but is supremely big-hearted.

The narration is charming--ironic, indulgent, and self-conscious--very similar to Trollope in this, but thankfully without Trollope's tendency to insert lectures on ecclesiastical law and form.  Easy to read, but long-winded at times--after all Oliphant wrote for the money (she was a widow and had children and extended family to support) and spun out the story in serialization for much longer than she needed to.  That said, it was fun to read and I only found it tiresome occasionally.  The introduction to the Penguin Classics edition that I read described the tone of Oliphant and Miss Marjoribanks in particular as sardonic--perhaps I took it too much at face value, but I felt it more ironic than cynical.

There are some wonderful other characters in Miss Marjoribanks as well.  Tom, Lucilla's cousin, could've been a model for Georgette Heyer's scattered-but-enthusiastic young lover hero type.  There is a brother-sister combo (Mr. Cavendish and his sister Mrs. Woodburn) who are not fair from Henry and Mary Crawford, although Mrs. Woodburn's thing is to mimic people, which makes her an interesting cross between contemptible and pitiful.  There are a pair of sisters, Rose and Barbara Lake, many rungs down on the social scale from the divine Miss M, who are utterly fascinating to me--the first is a fiery, tiny Pre-Rafaelite artist and the second is a talented singer who just wants a nice wedding.

The novel surprised me many times with its modern feel.  Many of the characters felt much more Edwardian than Victorian, and Lucilla herself freely acknowledged how much better at politics she was than the men she championed.  The men acknowledge this too!

Oliphant's Lucilla is a portrait of a strong, capable female who makes all her own decisions as well as those of the men in her life but is not a shrew (not a trace of Becky Sharp here), or a doormat (nothing of Agnes Wickfield from David Copperfield), or pious (much as I love Dorothea Brooke in Middlemarch, she can be holier than thou).

Much like Oliphant herself, Lucilla is resourceful, practical, and far-seeing.  I loved spending time with her, which is good because my version clocked in at just under 500 pages.

Miss Marjoribanks is one of the books I read for the Back to the Classics Challenge, and fulfills the category of author new to me.  But not for long, I plan to read more of Oliphant's Carlingford series in 2015!

Thursday, October 16, 2014

The Roosevelts: An Intimate History

I'm about half way through PBS's The Roosevelts: An Intimate History, which is a 7-part, 14-hour Ken Burns film about Theodore, Franklin, and Eleanor Roosevelt.  I recorded the lot when it was broadcast last month and am watching roughly a part a week, in two settings per week, travel schedule permitting.   It's fascinating and wonderfully done, as expected.

I read Doris Kearns Goodwin's book No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II awhile ago, and Peter Collier's The Roosevelts: An American Saga, both of which I enjoyed a lot.  Plus, last year I visited Theodore Roosevelt's Sagamore Hill property (the house is being renovated so was closed to the public) and FDR's Hyde Park home.  I'm no where near an expert, but I find the Roosevelt family to be compelling and a portal to a better understanding of the early 20th century.

I like the Ken Burns style of documentary--the stills with voice-over narration of quotes and as we move into the age of film/video actual clips.  Paul Giamatti does a reasonably good job as Teddy Roosevelt, and Edward Hermann does FDR really well, having played him for TV movies in the 1970s. Meryl Streep, however, is so Eleanor that it is almost spooky.

I also really like the experts who weigh in with perspective and analysis--Doris Kearns Goodwin is my favorite (so articulate and insightful), Geoffrey Ward is good (although he seems to be caught up emotionally in the story--he seemed on the verge of tears talking about FDR's pain post-polio), George Will is uniformly irritating and I tend to take his analysis with a grain of salt (looking for the hidden agenda, I confess), and Clay Jenkinson, David McCullough, and Jon Meacham are all good and credible.

I have to say, though, one of the main things that strikes me about the Roosevelts this time around is that despite their incredible fortitude, brilliant instincts, courage, and charisma, the three individuals profiled were remarkably bad and selfish parents.  FDR, while he was battling back after polio, was absent from home for months at a time, seeing his children infrequently; Eleanor moved into her own stone cottage and talked a lot about the need for a "life of her own" and stopped trying to connect with her children, conceding the fight to FDR's mother, Sarah; and Theodore insisted that his sons live their lives modeled on his own.  I find this maddening.  I think the children of these giants paid the price of their parents' greatness.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge

Ambrose Bierce, American author and journalist, 1842-1914

I've known for years about An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, a short story by Ambrose Bierce.  It's included in a collection I have entitled Shadows of Blue & Gray: The Civil War Writings of Ambrose Bierce.  I'm interested in the Civil War and heard that this was a chilling story.  Since I'm in the chilly story mode these days, I thought I'd give it a go.

It is remarkable.  Just twelve pages long, it is a perfect story.  The writing is crisp, almost clinical, as the narrator describes the execution of a Southern plantation owner during the latter days of the war when defeat was inevitable but loyalty to the cause still ran high.

As with any great short story writer, Bierce manages to convey a strong sense of the personality and drivers of the main character, the man being executed, in but a few phrases.  And as with any great short story, there are one or two moments at which the reader does a double-take.  The end of the story, of course, takes your breath away.

I love stories like this one and writers like Bierce.  At least I think I like him--I should probably read more than one story by him before making such a blanket statement.

Read it here and tell me what you think!

And in case you don't read it, I assure you, it qualifies as an R.I.P. challenge work!

Monday, October 06, 2014

Touch Not the Cat

I read Mary Stewart's wonderful paranormal romantic thriller, Touch Not the Cat, for both the R.I.P. Challenge and last week's Frightfall Read-A-Thon.  It's a shortish book--only 302 pages in the mass market paperback version--but it still took me all week.

Published in 1976, it was a nostalgic read for me.  That was the year I graduated from high school, and while all the action takes place in Europe, mostly England, but a bit in Madeira and Germany, the time and mores felt familiar from my teenage years.

Beyond the nostalgia, there's a lot to like in this novel.  The paranormal element is mental telepathy -- that is, the heroine, Bryony (love that name!) communicates mind-to-mind with her "lover," whose identity she doesn't even know.  She comes from an old family, the Ashleys, some of whose members share this ability, and so she assumes the person she can communicate with telepathically and who she has come to love romantically is related to her.  The family estate is entailed and when her father mysteriously dies, the estate must pass on to her uncle and his family of sons.  She cannot inherit it from her father being female.   Honestly, I had to work to suspend my disbelief around the mind-to-mind communication, but it was a fun premise and a kick to think about.

The estate is pretty cool too--complete with a moat and maze and secret dwelling within the maze where one of Bryony's ancestors, Wicked Nick lured maidens for romantic liasons back in the 1830s. There are Bryony's dashing twin cousins, one of which might be her mental lover, an American family that is leasing the estate, a friendly vicar, a hunky caretaker, a link to Britain's Roman past, and a way cool family motto..."Touch Not the Cat," which has Scottish roots and is linked to the shy but deadly Scottish wildcats.

There's a great Romeo and Juliet theme that run throughout the novel, in both plots (the modern day one and the one from the 1830s) as well as in chapter intros and more subtle references in the text that are fun to recognize.

The mystery is a bit light-weight.  Nothing gruesome happens, and there's a nice happily-ever-after with the nasties slinking off to parts unknown rather than being brutally dealt with.

A fun read...not terribly spooky but awfully fun.

Friday, October 03, 2014

Travelogue: Salinas and Steinbeck

Last week I visited the Bay Area, Monterey, and the Salinas Valley, which included a pilgrimage to John Steinbeck's home in Salinas, where we had lunch, and then an afternoon at the Steinbeck Center, just down the street.

Birthplace of John Steinbeck, Salinas, CA

John Steinbeck was born in the room to the left of the front porch (his parents' bedroom at the time) on February 27, 1902.  The room to the right of the front porch was the parlour and the room in which I had lunch, cooked and served by volunteers who work at, own, and run the Steinbeck House Restaurant.  When John was born, the upstairs was not yet finished, but by the time he was a teenager he and his sister had bedrooms upstairs.  Later, when he was married, he returned to the house to care for his ailing parents and wrote The Pastures of Heaven and The Red Pony in one of the upstairs bedrooms.

The house is on Central Avenue, and figures in his semi-autobiographical novel, East of Eden, as does downtown Salinas as a whole.

The Steinbeck Center is a couple of blocks away, on the corner of Central Avenue and Main Street, and it contains a wonderful interactive exhibit on the life and works of Steinbeck.  One of my favorite displays was this map of Salinas that traces the route that Kate takes when she walks around Salinas doing her errands.

This isn't a great picture of the map but after touring the exhibit, we did a walking tour of the town, noting where the candy store was, and the bank, and the Farmers Mercantile Building, and the other places mentioned in the book.  Sadly, nothing remains of the row of whorehouses across the tracks on what used to be Castroville street.

Historic downtown Salinas has a sleepy, nostalgic quality to it, and I had no trouble picturing the characters of East of Eden living and working in this town.  Swap the pickup trucks for Model Ts and you're almost there!

I also really enjoyed driving the length of the Salinas Valley and picking out the places from the various Steinbeck novels that I've read.  I picked up this terrific map at the restaurant gift shop to guide my way.

I love to make pilgrimages to favorite authors' stomping grounds.  I like to see the world they looked upon, breathe the air they breathed.  I think physical landscapes can shape mental landscapes and traveling in the Salinas Valley will only help me more fully experience Steinbeck's fiction.

Disclaimer: We also spent a fair amount of time in Monterey and Carmel, but despite the many statues and shops named for Steinbeck and his characters, modern-day Cannery Row is nothing like either the poem or stink that Steinbeck describes so elegantly in the opening lines of Cannery Row. Instead, it is a purely commercial, tourist haven--still fun to visit but it's not Steinbeck's Cannery Row.  Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday are among my favorite books of all time, but to visit the world Steinbeck describes in them, you can only read the books!

Sunday, September 28, 2014

The 39 Steps

I picked John Buchan's spy thriller The 39 Steps for one of my four R.I.P. reading challenge books, but the choice was absolutely serendipitous when I realized that it also could double as my Back-to-the-Classics novel in the wartime setting category.

I enjoyed The 39 Steps--it was published in 1915 and takes place the year earlier, the summer of 1914, when Europe tottered on the brink of war.  The first-person narrator, Richard Hannay, is caught in a counter-espionage plot and ends up being chased all over Scotland by both Scotland Yard (he is falsely accused of murder) and the German spies, whose plot to steal military secrets he has to foil before it's too late.

It's a fun book to read with an engaging narrator/protagonist.  Richard Hannay is a Scot who has traveled the world, made his "packet" as a mining engineer in the colonies, thinks in slang, and doesn't shirk from doing his duty.  It has a wartime-propaganda feel to it, which is interesting historically.

Hannay careens through Scotland much in the manner of a pinball--hiding in the heather, disguising himself as a road worker, blowing up a cottage in which he is held captive, donning tweeds, stealing cars and smashing them, and deciphering a codebook.  Hannay has amazing luck--getting himself out of impossible situations through bravado, cunning, and being befriended by a host of quirky characters.  There are coincidences that defy belief, but I found myself being a most forgiving reader this time round.

I don't believe there's a single female character in the whole book ( a mere 149 pages), though it seems each of the four movie versions added one or more female characters, probably to broaden the audience.  There's also a TV series, Hannay, which ran two seasons.

Buchan apparently featured Hannay in four subsequent books, none of which I ever knew about but might read out of sheer curiosity.

I'll probably start with the latest movie, featuring Rupert Penry-Jones in the lead role, because it sounds like the most faithful to the book, though the first is a Hitchcock movie and though "based" on the book is supposed to be the best.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry

I'm a sucker for books about books, for books about readers and writers, booksellers and bookstores.  I'm also making a concerted effort to read more recently published books--I try to pick a book from each month's Book Page and read it before too much time passes.  This month's pick was The Storied Life of A.J.Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin.

I enjoyed this modern-day take on the Silas Marner story in which a crotchety, middle-aged widower is robbed of his treasure only to find love, happiness, and family in its wake.  A.J. grew on me as the story progressed, and I enjoyed reading about the island town in Massachusetts where the story takes place and which is people by a host of interesting people.  My favorite character was actually the police chief, Lambiase, who thinks he doesn't like to read but ends up hosting a book club at the bookstore by midway through the book.

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry is a book for those of us who love to read--each chapter begins with a quote or two from A.J. about a book, and most of the dialogue has to doing with reading, writing, or selling books.

It's not a surprising book--I figured out most of the plot points a beat or two ahead of the story--but that's okay.  It was a pleasant book, an interesting story about interesting people, and was a great armchair trip to coastal New England.

Monday, September 15, 2014

The Daylight Gate

The Daylight Gate by Jeanette Winterson is my first spooky book of the season. It was surprising in some ways, definitely chilling, and made me curious to find out what else Winterson has written.

It's a short book, 224 pages in 4"x5" size page--more of a novella, really--and I read it in a day when I had lots of other stuff to do besides read.

The Daylight Gate is a fictional imagining of the circumstances behind the Lancashire witch trials of 1612.  In the Introduction, Winterson explains that the Trial of the Lancashire Witches is not only the most famous of the English witch trials but also the first to be documented.  A lawyer, Thomas Potts, wrote what he claimed was an eye-witness account, and Winterson uses this document as a spring-board for her story. 

The surprising thing for me about the novel was that the witches in it really seemed to possess some powers.  Most witch trial literature I've been exposed to--for example, The Crucible--focuses on mob hysteria, the power of suggestion and imagination, and the marginal status of most of the accused persons, who are usually women.  The witches in The Daylight Gate are powerful enough to inflict harm on their enemies, consort with familiars, seem able to shift shape, and can interact with the deceased via the Daylight Gate, which is essentially twilight, when the portal between the worlds of the living and that of the dead is open.

I really liked Winterson's style in the book.  The prose is clean, sparse, and blunt but the details are vivid and the pacing is almost mesmerizing.  Perfect for a dark, witchy book.  And it is dark.  Virtually every character is deplorable--the witches, and they're mostly from a single family, and their accusers.  There's some rough stuff in there that is hard to read at times--makes me quite glad that I wasn't alive during the early 1600's in Lancashire!

Winterson also tells her story without making it too black and white.  Despite my assertion that the witches seem to have some magical powers, she is fairly ambiguous as to how much of what is purported as magical is hallucination and how much is real.  I like that--in a book like this, the reader should be thrown off balance and forced to try to piece together where one world blends into another.

From a historical fiction standpoint, I found fascinating the link that the characters, particularly that lawyer Potts, made between witchcraft and Catholicism, that bogeyman of the 17th century.    Winterson did a masterful job of bringing in William Shakespeare as a believable character at this point in the novel.
The Daylight Gate was an interesting, well-written book--bite-sized but satisfying, giving me a lot to think over after I finished reading it, and a few jaw-dropping scenes that curled my toes.

This is the first book in my R.I.P. reading challenge You can read review of other scary books at the R.I.P. review site.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril IX - aka R.I.P 9 Reading Challenge

(Art used for banners is the property of the wonderful Abigail Larson)
The book blogosphere is all abuzz with the 9th R.I. P. challenge hosted by Carl at Stainless Steel Droppings. It runs from 1 September through to 31 October and involves reading from the following categories: Mystery, Suspense, Thriller, Dark Fantasy, Gothic, Horror, Supernatural...or anything sufficiently moody that shares a kinship with the above.
Most years I skip this challenge because I figure I have enough on my plate, reading-wise, but I do like spooky (not too spooky, though!) reading in the fall, so I decided to take the plunge and sign up for Peril the First (which is just 4 books to be read by Oct. 31).

Here's my list:

1. Whatever the Tuesday Book Talk group at GoodReads votes on for Oct.  It's looking like 77 Shadow Street, by Dean Koontz.  That's what I voted for since I haven't read any Koontz yet.

2. Touch Not the Cat, by Mary Stewart and/or The House on the Strand, by Daphne du Maurier--it'll be a reread but that's okay.  I read it >40 years ago!

3. The 39 Steps, by John Buchan - I have it, it's a classic, I've been wanting to read it since it started cropping up on everyone's blog last year.  Perfect timing.

4. The Daylight Gate, by Jeanette Winterson - I got this as a Christmas present last year and I want to read it this year.  Here's the Amazon blurb:
After the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, every Catholic conspirator in England fled to a wild, untamed place far from the reach of London law. On Good Friday, 1612, deep in the woods of Pendle Hill, amid baptismal pools and low, thick fog, a gathering of thirteen is interrupted by the local magistrate. Two of their coven have already been imprisoned for witchcraft and are awaiting trial, but those who remain are vouched for by the wealthy and respected Alice Nutter.
I have a lot of books underway already, but most are on fairly long reading schedules so I think I can squeeze in these mostly short (not 800 pages at least) books.

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

East of Eden

"It has everything in it I have been able to learn about my craft or profession in all these years." 
 "I think everything else I have written has been, in a sense, practice for this."
- John Steinbeck, about East of Eden

East of Eden was published in 1952--thirteen years after The Grapes of Wrath and fifteen years after Of Mice and Men.  I find that significant because I tend to think of these three books as coming from the same time period, but the quotes above position it as a more mature work, at least from the author's perspective and I have to respect his assessment of his own work and what he was trying to do with it.

I read East of Eden in high school and really enjoyed it--much easier and more interesting than The Grapes of Wrath when I was 15--but hadn't done a reread until last month.  It was interesting what I remembered and what I didn't.

For example, I completely remembered everything about the Trask story line.  At the most basic level, East of Eden is the story of two families in the Salinas valley in California, late 1800's/early 1900's--the Trasks and the Hamiltons.   Samuel Hamilton is Steinbeck's own maternal grandfather who emigrated from Ireland, married a dour woman, sired a flock of children, one of whom is Steinbeck's mother, Olive. The Trask family chronicles begin in Connecticut and theirs is the family that keeps on re-enacting the Biblical Cain and Abel story--Steinbeck helps the reader along by naming his Cain characters with names that begin with C and his Abel characters with names that begin with A.  If you remember nothing else about East of Eden, most readers will remember this..and the forehead scars (ala Harry Potter) that the Cain characters tend to acquire.

So, I remember the Trask family story pretty well.  There's the patriarch, Cyrus--a lying, cheating Civil War veteran who plays favorites among his two sons--lavishing love on his older son, Adam, despite forcing him into the Army, and slighting his younger, troubled son, Charles.  Adam and Charles grapple with brotherhood for years before Adam heads to California with his wife, the infamous Cathy, probably one of the most amoral creatures in literature.  Steinbeck occasionally refers to her as a monster and it is fascinating to watch him create this cold-blooded killer.  I remembered so much about her story from my high-school reading--definitely a memorable character.

After Adam and Cathy get to Salinas and meet Sam Hamilton the stories of the two families intersect and intertwine as Steinbeck pretty much tells the story of the Salinas valley.  Cathy leaves Adam after giving birth to twins--Caleb and Aron--who continue to thrash out the Cain and Abel story, but with the moderating hand of Lee, their Chinese-American housekeeper.  I'm ashamed to say that I do not remember Lee at all from my high-school reading and he is just about my favorite character in the entire book.  He and Sam Hamilton together make the book sing for me.

If East of Eden were only the story of the Trask family it would be formulaic, pedantic, and joyless, but Lee and Sam give it meaning.  It is Lee, the immigrant who tries to assimilate but cannot because mainstream American society cannot see beyond his racial appearance, who provides Adam and Cal with the mental construct of free will.  Caught in a vicious cycle of history repeating itself, Lee leads the Trask family out of the wilderness.  Lee is balance, moderation, compassion, logic, and heart.

I also didn't remember Sam Hamilton at all from my first reading, but what a wonderful, colorful. wise character.  I figured Steinbeck cast Sam as the Biblical Samuel--the prophet, the judge, the leader--makes sense to me.  And then, just to keep the Biblical references flowing, Sam's youngest son is Joe, who is his favorite (an allusion, I'm sure to the guy with the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat).  I even wondered whether Lee was to represent Asian-based religion--he does go to Chinese elders in San Francisco who study Confucius for help at several points.  And then, Cyrus struck me as one of the Titans, who were overthrown by the Greek gods...but perhaps I'm getting carried away.

East of Eden is an incredibly good book.  I enjoyed the pastoral descriptions of the land of Steinbeck (which I'm visiting in two weeks!), the history of the region (Lee's story of his parents' American experience was heartbreaking), the good vs. evil/nature vs. nurture/free will theme, and the marvelous prose by one of American's finest writers. 

There's a 1955 film that stars James Dean as Cal Trask and Julie Harris as Abra, but it really only focuses on the Trask family in the second half of the book...at least according to Wikipedia.  I might watch it someday just to see Dean and Harris in these iconic roles.

There's a 1981 mini-series with Jane Seymour as Cathy/Kate that looks pretty good, but is sure to be dated.

And I found some buzz about a new two-movie version starring Jennifer Lawrence as Cathy/Kate.  She would be amazing in the role.

With a movie or two coming out based on the book, I'll be happy to see East of Eden back on everyone's must-read list!

I almost forgot!  East of Eden is part of my Back to the Classics challenge, for the category Classic Adapted into Movie or TV Series.

It also counts in my Historical Fiction Reading Challenge -- it was published in 1952 but the story takes us through the end of World War I.